Technology put to test before new TLDs go live

Seven new top-level domains (TLDs) that have been greatly anticipated by Web users since they were announced in November represent the first fundamental change in the organization of the Internet. They either will change the Internet fundamentally or become its next dot-bomb.

Before the new TLDs are switched on by the U.S. Department of Commerce, which maintains the authority to assign them to the 13 root servers at the top of the domain name system (DNS) hierarchy, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and the registries that will operate them must finish negotiating complex contracts, a process that everyone agrees is taking too long.

ICANN, which was stung by criticism over the process it used to select .biz, .info, .name, .pro, .museum, .coop and .aero., has not said definitively when the contracts will be signed since missing the Dec. 31, 2000, deadline it set last year for getting them done.

The consensus among registries is that the contracts for what ICANN calls the unsponsored TLDs -- .biz, .info, .name and .pro -- will be completed by late in the third quarter. Generally, the unsponsored TLDs operate under policies established by the global Internet community directly through the ICANN process, while the sponsored TLDs -- .museum, .coop and .aero -- are backed by sponsoring organizations representing their communities that will write policies and take care of other matters concerning those TLDs.

There is also a distinct difference between a registry and a registrar despite their similar sounding names. Registries receive domain name service information from domain name registrars, insert that information into a centralized database and propagate the information in Internet zone files so that it can be found around the world by end user applications such as e-mail.

The registrars are the retailers of the domain names. Currently there are 80 accredited registrars providing direct services to the people, businesses and other organizations that register domain names. Registrars process the registrations and send the necessary DNS information to the appropriate registry for entry into the centralized registry database.

Although the contract negotiations between ICANN and the registries for the new TLDs are dragging on, officials of the registries also say ICANN has no choice but to be diligent in its negotiations, including thorough checks of the technology that will be deployed to support the new TLDs.

"They are very interested in making sure that all the new TLDs succeed. As a result of that they are ... not letting us just put in anything in. They are looking at the technology to make sure it will perform to the claims that we've made," said Jordyn Buchanan, whose title is futurist at Register.com Inc., one of the partners that established RegistryPro Ltd., which will operate .pro.

The delay also helps the registries indirectly by giving them more time to tackle a variety of challenges, including setting up their infrastructures, testing protocols, implementing new technologies, writing business plans and working with the registrars. These new plans for the Internet have created hotbeds of activity, especially at the programming and network engineering levels at the new registries, executives at the registries say.

Officials with the .info registry Afilias, an organization comprising 18 registrars, witnessed the excitement over the new TLDs first hand at the most recent meeting of ICANN, held in Melbourne, Australia, in March, when more than twice the number of people expected turned up for an Afilias presentation, which went on hours longer than scheduled.

At Global Name Registry Ltd. (GNR), a London-based company selected as the register for .name, officials say programmers are extremely excited to be involved in building the infrastructure for the new TLD because it is a rare chance to work on a global system that will be capable of providing digital identification services to tens of millions of individuals all over the world.

In November when the new TLDs and the registries were announced, ICANN cited technology among the reasons it selected Afilias, GNR and Registry Pro Inc., along with NeuLevel, formerly JVTeam LLC, for .biz; the Museum Domain Management Association (MDMA) for .museum; the National Cooperative Business Association for .coop; and the Societe Internationale de Telecommunications Aeronautiques SC for .aero.

Afilias has elected its 13 board members and is in the process of selecting its executive team and moving the company's headquarters to Ireland, said John Kane, marketing task force leader for Afilias. The .info domain is unique among the new TLDs because any company, person or organization will be able to register a .info address, while the other TLDs will require some level of certification. For example, only businesses will be able to register under .biz and only professionals -- doctors, lawyers and accountants in the first phase -- under .pro.

In addition it is developing the next generation registry-registrar protocol (RRP), a modified protocol that will incorporate XML (extensible markup language). The protocol enables the interface between registrars and registries and is a very important aspect of the registry system that Afilias and its partners are building for .info, Kane said. Adding XML will mean that information can be easily formatted and reformatted.

"We want to make sure it's simple to use and sign up for .info," Kane said. "Over the long term it (XML) will give us the ability to do changes more rapidly."

ICANN is taking a critical look at the protocol to make sure it meets all the standards it set forth, Kane said. As soon as it is complete there will be a testing period before it is sent out to developers.

Another improvement Afilias will offer is "who is" information will be archived not only by the registrar, but also the registry. This adds a layer of consumer protection by making information about the ownership of a domain accessible from more than one operation, Kane said.

The back-end services needed to run .info are being provided by IBM Corp. Kane described it as an extremely robust, redundant system that is being set up in IBM data centers all over the world. Afilias, a private corporation, has not disclosed the amount it has invested in the system, but the money is coming directly from the 18 registrars, which together agreed to raise at least $3 million to run Afilias.

IBM is also playing a major role at GNR. Its AIX 5L Version 5.1, unveiled in April, is running "hard-core" database and storage systems on RS/6000 servers that must scale vertically in the back office, while the open-source Linux operating system is running on the computers that feed into the AIX system, said Geir Rasmussen, chief technology officer and cofounder of GNR.

AIX 5L comes with several new tools for installing and working with Linux applications, including access to new APIs (application programming interfaces) and header files that let a variety of Linux software run on AIX with a relatively simple recompilation. IBM also put out an AIX Toolbox for Linux, which combines more than 200 tools and applications for uniting the two OSes.

"The AIX 5 platform is now in convergence mode with Linux," Rasmussen said. "That's very interesting to us because we are basing our infrastructure on a combination of these two operating systems. AIX is for hard-core stuff where we have to scale vertically; where we are scaling horizontally we are using Linux."

This infrastructure will provide the foundation for digital ID services, such as secure storage for an individual's data and transactions and personal communications that registrars can offer .

"We are clearly building something for the future, and with the architecture we are building, we are looking to enabling other types of services on the registry level, including digital ID services," Rasmussen said.

New technology will support the restricted .pro TLD as well, according to Buchanan. For example, it will be the first to have a direct link to security technologies, including digital certificates and PKI (public key infrastructure), putting much more digital security within the reach of consumers, he said.

"Anyone you deal with who has .pro will have a digital certificate. It will be issued with the domain name," he said. "By providing strong linkage between the domain name space and digital security space we think we are providing something new and different."

RegistryPro has been working with a digital certificate vendor, which Buchanan declined to name, to provide the service. The company also is looking into being a trusted third party that will hold a central directory for public keys within a PKI.

A goal of .pro will be to facilitate communications between professionals and their patients or clients. Plans call for it to include real-time DNS updates that will give .pro subscribers an Internet presence that's tied to all the devices they have, Buchanan said. That will be useful to doctors and lawyers who might not always use the Internet from the same central device, such as a desktop PC.

The .pro TLDs will spur new ideas in the developer community, Buchanan predicted. One such program is an e-mail client plug-in that automatically fetches the public key anytime it sees .pro in a domain address. All e-mail sent after that would be automatically sent encrypted.

This type of innovation on the technical level is the kind of thing that helped the winning TLD proposals stand out when ICANN considered them last year, said Cary Karp, director of the Department of Information Technology at the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm and a member of the MDMA.

The MDMA has designated the Swedish Internet Council of Registrars (CORE) to provide registry operator services for the .museum TLD. CORE has its own set of protocols, but there are others available from members of CORE, and .museum is now in the process of deciding which of the alternatives it initially will use.

As the wait for the new TLDs continues, Karp said he can understand ICANN's go-slow approach because it wants to ensure the reliability and error-free operation of the DNS.

"One of the purpose of expanding the number of TLD registries is to allow new approaches to the protocol issues to be implemented," Karp said. "No new names have been added, so there is a tremendous amount of need to proceed with caution ... even if in hindsight it turns out that it was too cautious."

Unfortunately, Karp added, much of ICANN's hard work on its current proof-of-concept trial has gone unnoticed because of the volume of complaints from the backers of proposals that weren't selected. However, if the process of adding the new TLDs goes well, ICANN is likely to approve more in the future.

"ICANN is now emphasizing they have not said no to anyone," Karp said.

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